Alice McDermott’s new novel, After This, vividly, often heart-rendingly portrays roughly 25 years (up through 1977) in the lives of the Keane family: John and Mary, and their four children, Jacob, Michael, Annie and Clare. The novel’s Irish-Catholic Long Island milieu will be familiar to McDermott’s many readers, as will her exquisitely descriptive prose and her loving portrayal of character. Her Catholic vision has, perhaps, never been so rich. Her new novel embodies the realities of human finitude, but also shows how finitude can open up into something more capacious, to a reality that reveals itself as gracious gift, to echo the novel’s final sentence.
The novel’s emblem for this vision is Michelangelo’s most familiar Pietà. Some will recall the first time they saw this sculpture of Mary holding her dead son: not in St. Peter’s in Rome, but at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing, N.Y. McDermott evokes the sensory experience of the fairthe crowds, the Futurama, the smell of Belgian waffleswith uncanny perspicuity. Mary, now married about 10 years to John, takes their older daughter, Annie, to the fair. In sweltering heat, mother and daughter stand in line, wait to see the Pietà, until, finally, the moving sidewalk carries them to it. The description of this momentepiphanic for both the characters and the readercasts light on the novel as a whole:
In the absence of all color and all other light, the white marble held every nuance and hue a human eye could manage. Here was the lifeless flesh of the beloved child, the young man’s muscle and sinew impossiblyimpossible for the mother who held himstill. Here were her knees against the folds of her draped robes, her lap, as wide as it might have been in childbirth, accommodating his weight once more. Here were her fingers pressed into his side, her shoulder raised to bear him on her arm once more. Here was her left hand, open, empty. Here were the mother’s eyes cast down upon the body of her child once more, and in another moment (they were moving back into the darkness) no more.
This image reverberates backward and forward, throughout the novel’s elegant chapters. The reader recalls the conception of Jacob, the eldest child, named after a young man killed in World War II; the family’s brush with mortality in the 1960 hurricane; and in what may be one of the most remarkable descriptions of childbirth in literature, the birth of Clare, the youngest, in the Keanes’ living room, with the aid of a kindly neighbor, Mr. Perischetti, whose own parental sorrows and hopes are generously portrayed.
But the image of the Pietà also portends the terrible losses and gains to come: the wounds and death wrought by the Vietnam War; two teenage pregnancies with very different outcomes; and the Christ-like love the charactersespecially Mary Keane and the naturally saintly Clareextend to those who are not loved, specifically to Mary’s officious friend Pauline. Throughout her life, Mary recalls and strives to live Jesus’ imperative, Feed my lambs. Clare, mysteriously, does not strive; gracefully, she just loves.
McDermott’s art is incarnational: it evokes the way the most prosaic and parochial of settings can yield universal resonances. Early in the novel, a polite exchange about the weather at Schrafft’s leads to marriage; a family visits Jones Beach one Sunday morning and is swept back into the car by the wind; in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, St. Gabriel’s pastor and parish council deliberate over the building of a new church; a class of daydreaming high-school girls is stunned by the self-revelation and passion of their teacher, who lectures on Medea on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Sister Lucy’s jeremiad stands with some of the best sermons in literature, including the famous Ignatian retreat preached in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here, however, the lecturer (and novelist) allow other voices to interject; the lecture turns to fractious dialogue on the issue that continues to divide our nation.
After This is a novel of aftermaths, both familial and cultural: the aftermath of death in a family, the aftermath of the 1960’s. At the end of the novel, in conversation with a Protestant visitor to St. Gabriel’s, Monsignor McShane suddenly realizes why many, like John and Mary Keane, wanted to see statues return to the stripped and stark new church: He knows immediately, as if he had never understood it before, what his parishioners were lonesome for, in this monstrosity of his. It was not the future they’d been objecting to, but the loss of the past. As if it was his fault that you could not have one without the other.
Monsignor McShane sees the wedding of past and future as impossible; the novel suggests it may be. Consider Michael. Having rejected his Catholic patrimony, now a college student in upstate New York, he lies beside a young woman whom he has just met and recalls a childhood prayer: Hail, Holy Queen. Mother of Mercy. Our life, our sweetness and our hope.’ He thought how even after you’d disentangled yourself from everything else, the words stayed with you.... Words you could dismiss as a joke as readily as you could claim them as the precise definition of everything you wanted.
After This beautifully renders the human desire to connect past, present and future, the human longing for the eternal. Like McDermott’s best work, After This resonates with attentiveness to the sheer, mysterious gift of life, in all of its parochial limitations, disappointments, times of grief and unexpected turns toward joy.